Our first move in Peru after the river trip was to get out of the heat by hopping on a bus heading to Huanuco. And, since everyone knows it’s bad luck to just take one bus, we immediately got on another bus. We knew we wanted to go to Huaraz and check out the amazing mountains and outdoors of the area, but, after a bit of research we decided to leave our bikes with the local bomberos of Huanuco and take busses instead of bikes. Immediately when we got out of the city we knew our choice was right. The road was a rough, windy single lane with no shoulder and traffic going way too fast in both directions. In a motorized vehicle it was crazy, on a bike it would have been insane. But it was quite a scenic ride to the town, La Union, where we would spend the night before continuing on to Huaraz.
In La Union we ate at one of the many chifa (Chinese food) restaurants we would be eating at in Peru. We have no idea how restaurants in Peru make any money when they barely charge people, but we’re okay with the mystery of it all. From there we secured a place to set up tents for the night, the local yard of the police station, and spent the rest of the night doing not much of anything at all. Our South African buddy, Dave, wasn’t feeling the best and when we woke up the next morning we decided to send him to the hospital and we’d spend a day around La Union.
While our good friend, Dave, was on his death bed in a foreign hospital, after recently having his passport and computer stolen, the rest of us decided to go on a hike. An hour or two of walking put us above town and onto a large plateau with houses, crops and farm animals. Another hour of walking put us to the entrance of an old Incan ruins site, Huanucopampa. A small five sol entrance fee (less than $2.00) got us in the gate and gave us a guide. We spent the next hour walking the organized loop and learning what all of the structures were about, including the platform dedicated to the sacrifice of humans. The entire area was meticulously built with attention being paid to every detail. We were very impressed to say the least.
Even more impressive, when we got back to town at the bottom of the valley, Dave was still alive. After we saw that he was having way too much fun alone in his hospital bed, the other four of us paid 4 soles and hopped into a three wheeled, blinged-out moto-taxi made to hold two or three smaller sized Peruvians and putt-putted our way to the hot springs just outside of town. We thought we would have to get out and push the taxi up the 1% grade hill, but the mean machine pushed through the pain that comes with the weight of four American men and got us to the springs. It’s quite safe to say this was the most interesting hot springs any of us had ever been to. When paying we were told there were two options, one sol or two. Being the big spenders that we are we opted for the expensive option, spending what would equal about 70 cents if converted to the US dollar. At this point we didn’t know the setup of the place and we thought the extra money would put us into a hotter or larger pool. Wrong. The extra money got each of us our own private bathtub in our own private room with water from the hot spring hooked into the taps. During our trip we rarely find showers with hot water and I guess locals of La Union take advantage of the hot springs for their baths or showers in these private rooms when the time comes. We felt a bit strange going into our own rooms to be anti-social and take baths in scolding hot water, but we got over it quickly and spent the thirty minutes we were allowed relaxing and resting our unused, mushy muscles. After we learned it was only a thirty minute walk back to town we decided to use our feet and skip the moto-taxi that insulted our weights by grunting and struggling up the slightest hill on the way to the springs. That night brought a lot of rain into the police lot and the next morning we needed to hang our things up for a couple hours before packing up and getting on the bus to Huaraz.
The five hour bus ride had our eyes wide and jaws touching the floor. We were finally being introduced to the magnificence of the Andes. Mountains were jutting up anywhere and everywhere covered in snow and ice. It was an awesome bus ride and this stretch had nicely paved, wide roads that made us wish we had our bikes to ride some of the curvy down-hills.
Being in a popular tourist town without the credibility of a heavy bike loaded down with bags didn’t really give us much of a chance of finding a free place to stay. So when we arrived to Huaraz we ate and started looking for the cheapest hostel. We lucked out and found an awesome spot that gave us a deal for having five people and checked in to El Jacal. We settled into our two rooms and headed to the roof for a view of the epic surrounding mountains and an incredible sunset.
After having the best night of sleep any of us have had in a long time, sleeping in a bed, we were well rested and had enough energy to walk around Huaraz checking out the area and learning about all of the different hiking and camping options. It’s tough to choose between all of the amazing options Huaraz has to offer, but we finally chose Quilcayhuanca as our first trip and spent the rest of the day getting gear and food figured out so we could leave the next day.
Dave still wasn’t feeling 100% so he decided to sit this one out and take a bus ride to Lima to get passport stuff figured out. The rest of us began what would end up being a five day, four night camping trip at the ripe hour of 10AM by hopping into a collectivo and riding up a rough road for an hour and a half. After dropping off the locals and adding an extra 20 soles to our price, the driver kicked us out a few kilometers before he said he was going to. We were a little peeved at getting hosed but it didn’t really matter because we were pumped to be at the beginning of our big Quilcayhuanca trek. Five minutes later we had our park passes (big thanks to Nugget Alaska Outfitter) and had begun walking.
Within half an hour, two things we had previously heard were confirmed: that the trail in would be flat, and that it would be pissing down rain. The forecast called for rain for the next 4 days.
Out of breathe from the altitude, shivering from the freezing rain, and already sore from the heavy packs, we were all individually second guessing ourselves and this camping trip when we saw a plume of white smoke. Upon locating its source, underneath a large rock overhang, we found out someone had started a fire with the dried-up number-two from the plentiful stock left behind by the four stomached beasts of the area. We were stoked. Not only did we have a sheltered area with a fire and cow friends, with a little landscaping work we also had enough room for two tents. Using Kanaan’s two hiking sticks and some rocks we hung our things up to begin drying and absorbing the smell of cow dung smoke. It took about four hours to get to our new cave home and we only had a couple of hours left of light for the day. With two massive rock walls on either side of us, huge mountains, a glacier and a large field of grass in the middle of it all we decided to get our tents setup and walk around this new environment that felt so familiar.
Waking up to a mostly blue sky was a pleasant surprise and we were happy to have a relaxed breakfast before breaking down camp and starting back on the trail with our full packs. From our topographical map we knew we were pretty close to a lake and decided to detour there before continuing on. The wind, rain, and chilly air stopped us from jumping into the lake composed of melt water from the snow covered mountains surrounding it, but just looking at it was enough to satisfy us. A few pictures and it was back to the planned route.
The switchbacks were a nice grade but the more we climbed, the harder it got. The elevation was making us breathe harder than usual and a couple of us had minor altitude headaches. It was well worth it once we got high enough to touch snow for the first time in over 15 months. When we got to a plateau we decided it was time to munch some lunch and soak up some scenery.
The overall idea of this hike was to walk into a canyon, cross a mountain pass, and hike out a parallel canyon back to the “real” world. Taking into account the time of day we decided to camp at our gorgeous lunch spot and conquer the pass the next day. In the meantime, we had quite a bit of light to deal with. To settle the light dilemma we setup tents, dropped our heavy packs and hiked up to a moraine overlooking a light blue lake and jagged glacier. One mini snowman and several boulder trundles later we were ready to go back down to camp and fill our bellies again.
That night brought a chilly air and we were pumped to wake up to snow surrounding us and covering our tents. Lucking out again with the morning sun we dried out the rain flies of the tents and began the ascent. The climb itself wasn’t too tough, but again, the altitude made breathing significantly more difficult than usual. A couple hours of hiking on snow covered rocks and we reached the top and spent lunch looking at the amazing mountains, lakes and glaciers.
Reaching the valley floor of the second canyon we knew we wanted to stick around for one more day to play and explore the area. Having tents setup and being able to goof off without having to carry our backpacks around with us was a big plus. We used the next day to hike to a glacial lake and explore the surrounding ridges.
Our final day of the hike greeted us with some powerful sunshine and zero clouds in the sky. We spent the morning leisurely packing up our things and listening to a story Kanaan wrote, based on true events, about a farm cow bred for beef escaping to the freedom of the Peruvian Andes (sure to be a future New York Times Bestseller). Walking out towards the real world, we were quick to get distracted and soon were stripping down (settle down ladies) for a dip into an icy cold lake. Feeling refreshed, it was time to leave this paradise. Two or three hours later we were in a fair priced taxi on our way back to Huaraz.
Not long after returning to town we remembered the Inka Film Fest was going on. At five o’clock we entered the local arts building and enjoyed several films about mountain climbing, kayaking, sky diving, and more. We were super surprised to see that Blue Obsession, a badass Mendenhall Glacier ice climbing film made by our friend Alan Gordon in Juneau was featured in the festival, but unfortunately it had played the day before while we were up in the mountains. The following day was filled with reading and lounging around the city, then more of the Inka Fest. We were easily the number one Inka Fest fans.
Dave had originally planned on returning to Huaraz after getting his passport issues sorted out. However, dealing with the Peruvian authorities turned out to be a real doozy and with a temporary passport he wouldn’t be allowed into the remaining southern countries. Advice from Dave is to never let someone steal your passport in Peru. Anyways, a variety of building factors in Dave’s life convinced him that it was time to end his South American odyssey and return home to South Africa. We were sad that we couldn’t travel more with him, as he fit perfectly in our group and we had some truly awesome times together. But that’s just how she goes. We love you Davey! Looking forward to the next place and time.
One morning, after we found ourselves lounging around once again, we decided this was unacceptable and decide to do something about it, so we sent for the Bauslers. Karl and Katie (Kanaan’s parents) must have been excited to see us because they arrived on a bus before an hour had past. We were all excited to reunite with the Bausler’s, even before they showered us with gifts. Besides the smoked salmon, fudge, m&m’s, jerky, etc… that our awesome parents had sent with them, some of our sponsors back home sent Alaska pins to re-gift people we meet, hundreds of stickers, and some much needed t-shirts with their added local flair. Thank you to ABAK and Aurora Projekt!
After we settled down from the excitement of our late summer Christmas we headed out to get some grub. We were treated to our first ever cuy dinner. Some of you may know it better as guinea pig. Either way, it was good stuff. It was made even better by the local craft brew, Sierra Andina, and non-stop great conversation. It was fun telling some of our favorite and not-so-favorite stories about our favorite and not-so-favorite people from the trip and hearing the latest and greatest of everything and everyone in Juneau. We miss you, Juneau!
Being fully fueled up on the previous nights’ cuy and fajita dinners, Max, Chris and Andrew had intentions of waking up early to leave for an overnight camping trip. But, this is ‘A Trip South’ and that means there was no chance of that happening. The extra gear needed for this particular hike, Vallanaraju, meant Andrew and Max needed bigger backpacks. Since we found this out after attempting to pack the night before the hike, this meant waiting until nine for a gear rental shop to open, thus turning our ‘early start’ into an eleven o’clock departure. But at least we were prepared, or so we thought. Our taxi driver dropped us off way before the agreed upon park boundary, giving us multiple extra hours to walk with our 60 pound packs and think about how bad we are with taxi rides.
We finally arrived hot and sweaty to the park. You’re supposed to have a guide but Max assured the park employee that we were from Alaska and did this kind of stuff all the time. After a quick check in and question session we could finally start our planned hike. Unlike our first camping trip out of Huaraz, this trail was immediately uphill. With several breaks to compensate for the elevation, we slowly made our way to the face of the glacier we would hike the following day.
The sunset hit the rocky, snow covered mountains in a way that made it hard for us to stop taking pictures. But eventually we set up our tents within spitting distance of the glacier and began cooking our meals while wearing every piece of clothing we brought.
Waking up already wearing warm socks, three layers of pants, gloves, three shirts and our jackets was a big help, but the 1:30AM wake up still wasn’t easy. We quickly packed up the things we would be leaving behind and scarfed a quick breakfast before storing everything we wouldn’t need behind a rock to return to later. Donning our harnesses, crampons and fully powered headlamps we began making our way up the glacier. Slow steps and short breaks to catch our breath would take up the next few hours of our day.
We got to the saddle between the north and south peaks just after sunrise and had an awesome view of Huaraz and several other mountains below a multicolored pink, purple, and orange horizon. It was quite a sight. After enjoying the great view for a while we decided getting to the saddle was enough for us. The routes up to either of the peeks looked thin and not especially tempting to maneuver. Plus, we had altitude headaches that made going higher unappealing. 5,600 meters (almost 18,000 ft) was enough for us.
Resisting the urge to sit down in our snow pants and slide down was difficult but if we’re known for anything it’s definitely discipline (and charm). The morning had been freezing cold (freezing a pot of water overnight during our short slumber) but now that the sun was out in full force we found ourselves in need of shedding a few layers. Walking down to camp was much quicker than going up and required considerably less breaks. When we returned to our previous nights camp spot at the base of the glacier we were exhausted. Climbing, lack of sleep, and altitude really took a toll on our energy reserves and we immediately sprawled out on the glacier rocks and passed out. Sometime later we woke up and started making our way down toward the road. The lower we got the more energy we felt, altitude was loosening its grip. Reaching the bottom was bittersweet. Stoked to be on flatland, but we still had no way of getting back to Huaraz, other than walking. Luckily one of the tour groups we came across near the summit finished shortly after us and had room in their van heading back to town.
Once in town we returned our rented gear and reunited with our favorite hostel, El Jacal. They let us keep our things in a storage room while we took our side trip up the glacier and now it was time to grab everything and crawl into another taxi. The Bausler clan was anxiously awaiting us at another hostel, located outside of Huaraz at the base of the mountains.
Backing up a day, the Bauslers rolled up to the Hof just as the sun was going down, in time for dinner and meeting the crew. The hostel of choice for Katie and Karl’s stay quickly proved to be a good decision. Norma’s delicious cooking, the warm welcome of George Jenny and Jenny Jenny, Chris the manager’s stories of walking across the United States, and Cobmaster Whitey’s bottle of Johnny Walker made it easy to feel right at home in the cozy simple brick structures of the Hof.
The next day after a tasty breakfast from Anna, the Bauslers went for a hike up to Churup Lake, exploring the area and acclimatizing to the new altitude. After a cold swim and an epic sunset, Chris, Andrew, and Max arrived just in time for dinner. A long day on all sides put everyone to bed pretty quickly in their comfy beds sent down by the gods.
The first full day with the full crew at the Hof was spent bouldering the epic rocks on the property, building the foundation for a cob oven, and harvesting clay for the upcoming weekend’s project. Whitey taught us how to test the clay for building and Karl discovered the jackpot vein of the dank yellow stuff. A new game called Illuminati tested everyone’s patience but provided some candlelight fun for the evening. Katie failed the test.
Much tea drinking and rock climbing guided the following day. More excellent boulders were discovered and enjoyed. We also tinkered with the only wood work aspect of the cob project: the door. However the power tools were all lacking power so we only got so far. After another amazing dinner a secondary round of Illuminati kept the tea cups full.
The official cob oven workshop started with an early wake up from Karl letting us know that the Quechua folks were coming up the hill already. A quick scarf-down breakfast and some groggy greetings later, the course was in action. Before we knew it we were barefoot ankle deep in sand, clay, and straw, dancing with the local ladies to mix the cob. An active task and lots of laughs turns out to be a pretty good recipe for bridging cultural gaps and making new friends.
The two day course went quite smoothly, Whitey rocked it as a maestro and Julia slayed at translating. As we piled layer upon layer to produce a structure, everyone learned a lot about building with cob and the process of making an oven. The days were long but engaging. Fun was had by all and in the end we had an oven built.
Our last full day at the Hof was spent recording interviews with the crew, playing Frisbee, bouldering, and walking up the irrigation ditch to the river source. Katie and Jenny Jenny’s pumpkin pie completed the day along with some deep intellectual discussions with George Jenny.
Departure from the Hof took a full day after scoping the Hof’s adjacent partner lodge, The Way (Out) Inn, and puzzling taxi rides together. It was a hard place to leave after so many fun events and new relationships, but returning to Huaraz was nice in itself. We celebrated the week in the mountains with dinner at a local craft brewery pub, and were surprised when our cob teacher Whitey Flagg came in after escaping from the hills. We were all happy to see each other again and made plans for the following day to visit the archaeological ruins of Chavin together.
Empanadas and pan de leche from the sidewalk lady down on the corner put us in the zone for some bus riding. After meeting Whitey at the California Café for a little bonus breakfast, we made a break for the bus stop. Three hours later we were riding through a tunnel to the other side of the Cordillera Blanca. A giant Jesus greeted us when we emerged, with a welcoming open palm as if to say, “this ride is about to get bumpin’.” We rattled down into the town of Chavin and found a chill hostel. We then learned that both the ruins and the hot springs were about to close for the night (who closes hot springs at night?) so we had to postpone plans for tomorrow. However, before tucking into our dorm room for the night we happened to find a bottle of Ron Cartavio, which ended up convincing us to find out how many people could squeeze into the brick oven behind the hostel. Whitey said it was for research purposes. The final lesson of the class. The answer is four.
Whitey and the Bauslers went for an early morning hot springs session to kick off the next day while the others got an early start at the ruins. When the Bauslers arrived the boys were already on their second lap. Katie hired a tour guide and we got the full spiel as we wandered around the site. Chavin has quite a deep history, predating the Incan Empire by nearly 2000 years. Chavin means “center” and was used as a meeting place for groups from all directions, from the jungle, to the mountains, to the coast. It has a super intricate underground system, and we had fun exploring the tunnels, chambers, and drainage channels. We checked out our guide’s carvings collection and the museum and then got back on the bus to return to Huaraz.
Back in Huaraz, the Bauslers and Whitey hit the market to stock up for the final meal with the family: Katie’s chicken cacciatore. A legendary feast materialized and we even got Kanaan’s sister Kaitlyn, her boyfriend Chris and the Bausler’s patriarch, Jacques the dog, on the phone to complete the family meal.
Katie and Karl boarded a bus to Lima the next morning after a last minute mission to the artisan market for souvenirs. We then packed up all our stuff and made our way to the other bus terminal to go back to La Union. It was finally time to leave Huaraz.
But the bus was full until tomorrow so we went back to the hostel and rented Harry Potter 7 part 2 on iTunes. Chris was the happiest among us for the delay because he got to finish the book he had rented from the California Café library.
An early morning departure put us in La Union around mid day, and we asked to get dropped off at the baños thermales, where one of the employees invited us to camp the last time we were there. We dropped our gear there and went for a hike, which ended up turning into a long rock throwing competition resulting in some serious push-up debts. After a market meal and an intense internet research session (Miley Cyrus is Hannah Montana and Accio! is the summoning spell in Harry Potter), the push-up debts multiplied and so we made our way back to the baños thermales. Too much time in the pool and a heavily audienced card game later, we were sleeping on the top floor of the hot springs.
An early taxi got us out of town the next morning, and we certainly knew La Union would be missed. It was perhaps the town with the most curious citizens we’ve encountered, and although that much attention can be overwhelming at times, it was at least easy to make local friends. We arrived in Huánuco in the early afternoon and made our way to the bomberos where our bikes had been stashed for the past three weeks. We were a little surprised to find the room where they were being stored with three giant holes in the walls and the roof half stripped. Luckily they had moved the bikes before the demolition, and as we gathered our things we watched them knock the rest of the wall down. Unfortunately we didn’t notice it at the time, but over the next few days we realized random things like our multitools, bike lights, and tire patch kits were no longer in our possession. Probably stolen by the neighbor kids. Oh well.
Our next Peruvian destination was Cusco, some 1000 mountainous-kilometers away from Huánuco. Chris had decided to end his trip sooner than the rest of us and was to meet his parents in Santiago, Chile at the beginning of October. Since it was mid-September, and factoring in enough time for the four of us to visit Machu Picchu together, we had about 10 days. We were familiar with the legends of this section of road: continuous 30+ km climbs, hundreds of kilometers of dirt roads, bus rides of 200 km taking over 20 hours. All this translated to slooooowww – we realized that we were not going to be able to bike this distance with our time constraint; so why not stick out a thumb?
Our first full day of biking brought us to the self-proclaimed “highest city in the world”, Cerro de Pasco. And with a population of 80,000 at 4500 meters (~15,000 ft) we couldn’t dispute. Before arriving we had been recommended by another cyclist to stay a night in Cerro “to experience it”. This barren mining town in its barren environment with constant sulfur smell and halogen light haze made us think it would be the perfect place to film a post-apocalyptic movie. We stopped at the bomberos and were ushered in before we could even ask; they seemed to be accustomed to cyclists. Our hands were quickly filled with tea and bread as we joked with the commandante. Finishing the night with a spaghetti dinner while watching Monday Night Football before each getting into our own bed made this possibly the best we have been treated at a bomberos station!
Not too long after we started riding the next day we were in the grey wall of cloud that had been in front of us. And it was cold. And then it started raining. And then the rain turned to snow. And then the snow turned to hail. And then we decided to take shelter. The weather abated and we made another 10 km to a restaurant where we decided that this might be a good time to try hitchhiking. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves in the back of a box truck dry and playing cards as we hustled down the highway, catching two feet of air off our bums with every speed bump. Two hours later we arrived in another mining town, La Oroya. Biggest news that night was the discovery that our website had been hacked by some Turks! …I guess they were just going for those high profile webpages…. Big thanks to our boy Duncan for helping us (aka doing everything) to de-turk our site!
We decided to stretch our legs a bit and bike the following day to Huancayo. 124 km? No problem…well that is if the highway follows a river downstream. It was pleasant ride and Chris and Kanaan got a bridge-jump in while Max and Andrew lunched on Pachamanca de la Tierra. As we rolled into town we headed straight for the train station. The iron horse was one method of travel that we had yet to sample on our trip south and the 150km ride from Huancayo to Huancavelica looked like it would fill that void. Unfortunately our timing was off and the next train would not be leaving for another two days. But after a group consultation and consent of the bomberos to house us another night we decided to wait for the train.
Winding up a river valley the train dropped off passengers at many little towns, some which were penned-in by the valley and only had these tracks as access out. The train pulled into the Huancavelica station in early afternoon. We had little trouble finding the bomberos and quickly joined the volleyball game; making it Alaska vs. Peru. Though we were a foot taller than their team, we got spanked. Those guys can really ace it.
The next few days saw us riding on more truck beds, mixed in with some spectacular bike rides (mostly on the downhills). The mountains of Peru are incredible; huge landscapes with very few people. Sitting in the bed of a truck is an awesome way to travel through this country. Although traffic was minimal in most of these sections, we were always picked up by one of the first few trucks to pass. From Huancavelica we continued on to Ayacucho, Andahaylas, Abancay and a few smaller towns in between. One night we stayed just outside of Rumichaca, the next day we had déjà vu as we passed through Rumichaca 50 km later.
As far as road conditions were concerned, we came through this section at the right time. A massive road-works project is underway and hundreds of kilometers of roads have been or are being expanded, paved, and improved. We were able to have a few “pow days” – taking the (truck) lift up and riding (paved) freshies down perfect curving hills with no traffic.
Between Andahuaylas and Abancay we were kicking ourselves for the last ride we caught because soon the road switched inclines and started to descend. But then the pavement petered-out and we were bumping along a rocky road. At that point we were quite happy that we had caught the only truck we saw that day. Eventually the family turned off and we continued picking our way through the dust and rocks into the sunset. A solid hour or so after darkness fell, we reached a small mountainside village with a simple tienda where we could buy food. The shop owner pointed out a bulletin on the wall outside, posted by a Polish bike tourer who had camped in the forest nearby (where we probably would have slept) and got everything he owned stolen. They nice folks of the village directed us to the school yard, where we cooked our dinner and camped securely for the night.
Waking up surrounded by grazing horses, pigs, and sheep, the slow descent continued into the next morning and afternoon to the town of Abancay. We again stuck out the thumb to get the last leg into Cusco, but to no avail. There were many trucks, but no one willing to take some bikers. That evening the owners of a fast-chicken restaurant allowed us to sleep inside after closing. Again in the morning we tried for a bit to catch a ride but still had no luck. So we headed down to the bus terminal to get on into Cusco. As we cruised through the city we were surprised to see the army of police with fully donned riot gear. What was most striking to us was that there wasn’t any striking or rioting – it appeared to be a normal day, but I guess something was to come. It was fun having the teargas/riot shield laden police line part to let us bike through. An uneventful bus ride brought us into Cusco with the evening.
Cusco delivered a strong dose of culture shock when we arrived. After our accelerated push through the rural mountains of the Peruvian Andes, the tourist scene of Cusco was a little overwhelming. The capital of the Incan Empire was easily the biggest traveler’s hub we have seen on this trip. Following recommendations from a cyclist we met outside Abancay, we found La Estrellita, a cheap hostel near the centro that was housing at least ten other bike tourers. It was cool to meet so many other people doing similar trips to ours, and heard some stories that made us never want to bike through northern Alaska.
A long night of celebrating our final destination as a group of four got us kindly exported from La Estrellita, so the next day we made our way to the next cheapest hostel we could find, La Casa de las Cerezas. The young manager lined us up with transportation to go visit Machu Picchu the next day, so with an early morning we were in a van for the six hour ride.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu, but with Chris’ time constraints to meet his parents in Santiago in less than a week, we decided to settle for the mid-level price and adventure range. There are routes that you can do for multi-day hikes in to Aguascalientes, which would be on the cheaper and radical sides of the spectrum, but we opted to take a van to the hydro electric plant and then walk two hours along the train tracks to the town. It was a gorgeous introduction to the Machu Picchu area, following a clear-water river up the valley of gigantic granite walls overflowing with lush jungular vegetation. It actually felt pretty similar to Costa Rica in climate and environment, quite the contrast from the Peru we were used to.
In the town of Aguascalientes we bee-lined it to the ticket office to get our Machu Picchu passes for the next day. The price and all the accompanying restrictions of the tickets were not worth laughing at. Neither were the elevated prices of everything in tourist town. Aguascalientes is cute, especially with all the good looking travelers swarming, but it was far from our favorite town.
An early rise and a steep 45 minute hike landed us at the gates of Peru’s premier attraction, and it was already bustling with patrons. Machu Picchu is a seriously impressive operation. It was incredible to see how many people flowed through there each day. Our early start gave us a few hours before it was totally blown out with visitors, and we made the most of it.
Our first stop was the Intipunku, the “Sun Door” which is the eastern gate to the city and entrance from the famous Inca Trail which united the entire empire, including Huanucopampa, the site that we had visited over a month and 1000 kilometers ago outside of La Union. The long walk out to the guard station provided some gorgeous early morning views of the ruins site and the surrounding mountains.
We kept grooving on hiking mode and went to the opposite end of the site, the western exit called Incachaka, or Inca bridge. That was pretty impressive. They had built a bridge along a vertical rock wall a couple hundred feet tall that looked like it connected to a trail that traversed an even bigger wall. Our best guess was that it was the escape route if the city got sacked. But we didn’t have a tour guide so who knows.
The rest of the morning we explored the main bulk of the city, trying to get lost in the endless terraces but getting whistled at by all the security guards on patrol. The architecture was immense but admittedly not as intricate as Huanucopampa and Chavin, the other sites we had seen. Undoubtedly impressive nonetheless. By mid-day we were ready to go back to town to watch football. If there’s anything a tourist town is good for it’s the satellite television on game day.
After two rounds of beers that cost more than our next couple meals combined, we made it to the hot springs that Aguascalientes is named for. More warm than hot, but sufficiently therapeutic on our hiking muscles. We made our way out of town late in the night and walked the train tracks for about twenty minutes before a late night local locomotive operator pointed out an excellent campsite down by the river.
Waking up by the tranquil river at the foot of a huge granite wall with a view of Machu Picchu perched at the top was the perfect way to start Chris’ last day with us, and Kanaan’s last day of his 24thyear. We walked out the tracks after a swim in the river, and sat in the parking lot to wait for our pick-up. This was our greatest flaw in the Machu Picchu scheme. We shouldn’t have booked transportation both ways. We had figured that if we didn’t have a ride lined up we would be stuck out there, but there were ample taxi drivers waiting to take people back to Cusco. We sat for a few hours in the bugs watching people arrive from the train tracks and get whisked away almost instantly. Finally after much debate with drivers from the same but different (?) transport company that we had tickets for, our ride came and took us back along the bumpy, windy, for some reason un-paved but heavily travelled road to Cusco.
Chris decided to postpone his bus trip to Arequipe by 12 hours to spend one last night with the crew. Beers in the park inaugurated Kanaan’s 25th birthday, but tired eyes soon caught up with everyone, and we hit the sack hard. The final farewell went down in the alley outside the hostel as Chris mounted the saddle and rode his steed to the bus terminal. A slow mellow morning set the pace for the day of birth celebrations. Breakfast at the market and wandering around town without direction completed the morning. Eventually we ran into some Kiwi (New Zealander) friends that we had met the night before in the park. Georgia and Ruben were chilled out dirt bag travelers, our kind of people, so we spent the rest of the day exploring the city and drinking beers on the hill with the sunset. A rocking Peruvian cover band at the bar next to our hostel completed the night with some really well done Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Doors, and Rolling Stones tunes. It was safe to say that Kanaan was officially one quarter of a century deep after that.
The departure from Cusco went relatively smooth. All slightly downhill with a nice straight main street got us out of town quickly. With Chris’ leaving we were now down to only three people – our smallest group of the whole 16 months. But it wouldn’t be long before we met other cyclists. As we scouted the main plaza of Urcos for food vendors our first evening out of Cusco, we were approached by a French couple who are also on their bikes headed south. Over the next two days we kept crossing paths and had a good time sharing stories of the road. And they weren’t the only ones; we met ten other cyclists by the time we hit the Bolivian border. Like Coast Rica where we met many, many cyclists it seems as if the stretch from Cusco to La Paz, Bolivia is another choke point for cyclists.
Cusco seems to mark the beginning of the terrain transformation from mountains to altiplano (high plains). With the 30 km climbs behind us our perspective had shifted greatly and now we joked about the 10 km climbs maybe reaching 400 meters higher. With the flats in front of us and a few days of tailwind, we probably averaged the most miles kilometers of the trip racking-up multiple 120+ km days.
This was a very pleasant section to ride and putting in these long days we didn’t do too many non-bike activities, but we did have the noteworthy experience of having our cheapest dinner of the trip. The typical soup, plate, and drink ran us an economical 2.5 soles ($1 USD ≈2.8 soles). And everyone says that Bolivia is the cheapest country, so we’ll see what our savings are like there!
Four days after leaving Cusco we caught sight of the highest large lake in the world: Titicaca (or Titikaka or Titiquaqua depending on your inclination). And it is a vast body of water; from many vantages one cannot see the far shore. In some ways it was reminiscent of biking along the Sea of Cortez in Baja California or Big Sur in California. But a mouthful of salt-free water when swimming was a pleasant reminder that this ain’t no sea.
Two months of Peru and a few thousand kilometers brought us to the border with Bolivia; and a long visa form and $135 USD (a “reciprocity fee” since America likes to charge so much for entry into our beloved country) took us over the border into our 13th country.